The Incalculable Things that Define Us

As we try to measure everything that moves, we need to remember that some of the most important things about us can’t be measured.
by | March 26, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Recently I went to Annapolis to watch Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley lead a session of StateStat, his performance-management program that relies heavily on measurement of outcomes. In a conversation with the governor after the session, we talked about what he's trying to achieve with StateStat, and he referred to a 1968 speech by Bobby Kennedy in which Kennedy talked about the fact that our measurements of national output don't gauge that which is truly valuable.

I looked up the speech. It's bold, fearless and direct. Here's part of what Kennedy had to say:

Our Gross National Product ... counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. Yet the Gross National Product does not ... include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. ... And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

The Chinese economy is notoriously booming — China's economic output is now the second-largest in the world and predicted to overtake our economy in a dozen years or less. And yet, while China's rulers tout the economic success of the "Chinese model," many of most successful are heading for the exits in search of things money can't buy in China: Cleaner air, safer food, better education for their children. A survey published in November found that 60 percent of the some 960,000 Chinese people with assets over 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) were either thinking about emigrating or taking steps to do so. The United States was the top destination, followed by Canada, Singapore and Europe.

Abraham Lincoln wrote that the purpose of government is to do for a community of people what they cannot do for themselves acting in their individual capacities. He also said that well administered government is expensive. The cost is great — and is only exceeded by the cost of not doing well what the people need done. And the value of what is obtained — freedom, a sense of order and belonging and justice, and hope for the future — is incalculable, and priceless.